Also published on Medium, with audio version available to Medium members.
Look, I get it. I totally understand your reluctance to discuss racism. I know that even hearing the words racism or worse, racist, feels accusatory – offensive, even. I hear you saying, “I’ve never personally owned a slave; why should I be held responsible for things that happened so long ago?” I also know how much you hate it when people “play the race card” to take away things you deserved, like that job promotion. I mean, since Affirmative Action discriminates against white people, that is reverse racism, right?
I get it. I get it because I used to think like that, too.
I never thought of myself as a racist. I’d always had black friends. I grew up adoring Michael Jackson and Prince. The Cosby kids, Gary Coleman… all staples of my youth. I revered the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., I hoped to have the bravery and fortitude of Rosa Parks. I voted for President Obama, twice. How could I be complicit in any kind of racism, and furthermore, why was I being held accountable for it? The cognitive dissonance was strong.
You don’t think of yourself as a racist, either – and please know, I’m not calling you one. I know you’re a good person. I know you have black friends. I know you look back on Jim Crow laws with disdain and embarrassment. I know you were horrified and maybe even shocked seeing such unabashed, overt racism on parade in Charlottesville last August. I know it shook you to the core seeing angry white racists – who don’t represent the majority of us – with a very depraved idea of “patriotism,” marching with their tiki torches, protesting the removal of confederate statues while chanting “blood and soil.” When an innocent counter-protester was killed, I know that you mourned over what this world has seemingly become.
It was quickly revealed that the Charlottesville murderer was a white supremacist, and as you lifted your chin from a momentary feeling of shame, you washed your hands of racist idiots and then? You distanced yourself, and you moved on. It felt good to shake your head at the dregs of society, and to stand in solidarity with the peaceful, sane, rational people who are still left in this world.
But see, here’s the thing with racism. It doesn’t always show up in a white hood, carrying a burning cross (or tiki torch, for that matter). In fact, there’s an even more insidious kind of racism than the Neo-Nazism we saw running amuck in Charlottesville. It’s insidious because you don’t even know you’re infected with it; it’s covert, it’s invisible.
Does the presence of a black man make you walk a little faster or lock the doors from the inside of your car? If a black teen is walking through your neighborhood at night, do you keep a watch on him for “suspicious activity?” Do you assume he’s a “thug” if he’s wearing droopy jeans and a hoodie? Have you ever used the phrase “playing the race card” in regard to a person of color? Do you say or do things behind closed doors that you’d never say directly to, or in the presence of your black friends (or gay, or trans, or feminist friends)?
Racism has been so meticulously sculpted and embedded into every aspect of American life that we refer to it as systemic. In other words, we have a historically-based system already well-established, in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. We see systemic racism through discrimination in education, banking & finance, mortgages & home lending, employment and unemployment, and so much more. Look no further than our prisons to see the racialized power imbalance in our justice system; there’s a reason why mass incarceration is called “the new Jim Crow.”
Systemic racism also confers that in America, white is not only the dominant race, but also the default race. This is why when you turn on your TV, look at billboards along the highway, pick a magazine off the rack, or watch the news, you see people of your own race widely represented, and usually, speaking as authority figures. Systemic racism is the reason why when you go almost anywhere, whether it’s to see a new film, or to the store to purchase books, cards, shoes, dolls, bras, or panty hose, for example, you can be guaranteed that they will match (or come close enough to) your own skin color if you want them to.
Systemic racism is not only why you can easily find items such as cosmetic foundation, blemish concealer, tinted moisturizer, and band-aids in just about your exact skin tone, but also, it’s the reason why these items are frequently given color-associated names like “flesh” or “nude.” As white people, we don’t give much thought to this. But covertly, these messages insinuate that white people’s skin is the only valid color, the only color capable of creating a “flesh” illusion, the only color that can pass as “nude.” We’re completely conditioned to take subtle implications like this for granted, yet they serve to reinforce our present hierarchy and privilege as a Caucasian race.
Oppressive structures and systems in return contribute to a more dangerous, insidious form of racism that brews deep inside each of us white folks. This type of racism is dangerous because its roots are deep, and we’ve failed to starve it. It lives and perpetuates because it’s constantly fed by our denial. Further, it functions without our knowing consent and without our direct approval. That insidious, covert form of racism may just be the strongest chokehold we have on people of color right now. That’s the thing we have to become highly aware of first, before we can even begin to do right by our friends of color.
Also, we need to clear up a common misconception. Racism in America does not mean one group of people hates another group of people, or that one group thinks they’re better than another. When we have attitudes towards people or associate stereotypes with them without our conscious knowledge, that’s implicit bias. We all have some degree of implicit bias. If we negatively pre-judge another person or group, that’s prejudice. Writer and racial justice educator Debby Irving states, “a person of any racial group can be prejudiced towards a person of any other racial group. There is no power dynamic involved.”
If we then act on impulses of implicit bias or prejudice in a way that takes away from another person’s experience, especially when that person is minority or of a marginalized community, that’s not only hurtful, but it’s also discrimination. If we have a very severe case of prejudice that is accompanied by discriminatory behavior, that is bigotry. As Irving says, bigotry is “arrogant and mean-spirited, but requires neither systems nor power to engage in.”
Racism may have elements of implicit bias, prejudice, discrimination, and bigotry, but the key difference is power. Racism, defined by Irving is:
“the system that allows the racial group that’s already in power to retain power. Since arriving on U.S. soil white people have used their power to create preferential access to survival resources (housing, education, jobs, food, health, legal protection, etc.) for white people while simultaneously impeding people of color’s access to these same resources. Though “reverse racism” is a term I sometimes hear, it has never existed in America. White people are the only racial group to have ever established and retained power in the United States.”
Another concept to realize is that “playing the race card” doesn’t actually exist. What does exist is a widespread misconception that people of color get privileges at the expense of white people, that people of color are given a VIP pass without even having to try. But that’s not how it works. For example, Affirmative Action does not admit someone into a school because of their race. What Affirmative Action programs do say, however, is that all things being equal, the tiebreaker should go to a person of color in recognition of the structural oppression that obstructed their advancement up to that point. Yet, in the words of writer Andrew Hernández:
“Unfortunately, many white folks still misunderstand Affirmative Action as some kind of free meal ticket. Why? They rarely see all of the people of color who didn’t even get the chance to be considered for such a program.”
Affirmative Action programs are designed to help people of color access the schools and jobs from which they’ve been historically excluded. So no, it’s not “reverse racism.” Racism is privilege plus power. Because white people have the symbolic power and are privileged (i.e. not an oppressed people), it is impossible for them to be the recipients of systemic racism.
The next concept, white privilege, may be one of the hardest for my fellow white people to understand, but stick with me:
If you’re white, even if you’re not an overt racist, even if you know in your heart that you don’t ever discriminate against people based on the color of their skin, you still benefit (through no choice of your own) from the way systems and institutions are set up to function in this country. This is what’s meant by the term white privilege. If the sound of that phrase makes you sigh, don’t worry. White privilege doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means; it’s not an insult. It’s just a fact. It doesn’t mean that you are “favored.” It doesn’t mean that everything in life was handed to you free, that you’ve had a carefree and lazy life, or that you didn’t pull yourself up by the bootstraps to get where you are now. It also doesn’t assume you’re in a financially stable, mentally healthy, happy part of life right now, either.
White privilege, as famously described by Peggy Macintosh, is “an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in every day, but about which I am meant to remain oblivious.” If you’re white in America, by virtue of the color of your skin, you were born with a few advantages not afforded people of color. You’re also socially conditioned to be unaware that you have privilege (again, not your fault). White privilege means that you can live your life and you won’t be disadvantaged because of the color of your skin. You might be poor, you might not have privilege in the way of upper (or even middle) social class, but if you’re white, you are statistically more likely to be hired for a majority of jobs because of your skin color.
It doesn’t matter if your family never owned slaves. As a white person in America, you still benefit from the oppression of black people in ways you don’t even think about. The very America we know today was built by slaves, who were unpaid laborers, for centuries. Western fields of mathematics, astronomy, science, technology, metallurgy, architecture, engineering, medicine, and navigation were all built off the knowledge of black slaves from Africa.
The Constitutional rights and opportunities that white people enjoy were not even available to black people until 53 years ago. That, viewed alongside the fact that only white people could accumulate land and property until as recently as the 1940s, and you can maybe begin to understand why many young black people today don’t have a rich elderly grandmother who set up college funds and a nest egg for her grandchildren based off of her family’s accumulated wealth.
“But,” you say, “my family isn’t rich… I grew up poor, in a trailer park. How do I have any privilege?”
To answer that, I recommend reading this essay: “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person,” by Gina Crosley Corcoran. There are simply no better words to explain white privilege to white people – at least not that I’ve found. For another compelling viewpoint, staff writer for The Root, Michael Harriott, describes white privilege with this analogy:
“Imagine the entire history of the United States as a 500-year-old relay race, where whites began running as soon as the gun sounded, but blacks had to stay in the starting blocks until they were allowed to run. If the finish line is the same for everyone, then the time and distance advantage between the two runners is white privilege. Not only can we see it, but we can actually measure it.”
When we go to school and learn about our heritage and our nation’s history, if we are white students, we are shown that people of our own color made America what it is, and we can most likely count on our children being taught the same narrative from their school’s selection of Eurocentric text books. This is white privilege.
White privilege also ensures little luxuries like, if we travel and stay in a hotel, the complimentary shampoo will typically work well for the texture of our hair, and if not, the travel-size section of a nearby drug store will generally always contain an assortment of hair products that will work for us. Further, white privilege is the reason why we buy our hair products from the “hair product” aisle in the first place, and not an “ethnic” section, or a separate “specialty” store altogether.
White privilege leads us to (knowingly or not) having some sense of entitlement. As a white person, if that hotel we’re staying in only provides African Queen Moisturizing & Skin Lightening Soap instead of the plain Dove Soap we’re accustomed to, we might feel like we’re on a Twilight Zone episode, or at least, we might feel slighted. We’re accustomed to not only seeing, but expecting/being entitled to “white” things. White privilege also means that every time we look at a piece of American currency to purchase white things, we always see a white person’s face on that currency. And if, in our travel we visit historic places or monuments, we’ll likely be reminded of how much we celebrate our American white history (which is every day).
White privilege is also why we can cope well in difficult situations without being insulted, like being called “a credit” to our race, or “well-spoken” for our race, and why we can be fairly certain that if we ask to speak to “the person in charge” we will be facing a person of our own race. (For more of this list, visit Peggy Macintosh’s 1989 article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.
A long time ago I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I adored the poet, writer, and civil activist, Maya Angelou. Before the world lost her in 2014, I tried to absorb as much of her writing as I could. She had genius wisdom and more than enough famous quotes to prove it. Some of my favorites are:
“If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.”
“When people show you who they are, believe them.”
This quote I didn’t find until much later in life, but it profoundly moved me, and helped me with accountability:
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
When I began reading, learning, and later advocating for my *TGNC child, I also got an education and small glimpse into the microcosm of some other marginalized communities as well, including people of color. Needless to say, it was eye-opening, and Maya Angelou’s words “when you know better, do better” resonated on a deep level.
I learned that I personally was contributing to systemic racism without even realizing it. And, I was getting a lot of things wrong with regards to language, perpetuating stereotypes, jokes, and some deeply held personal biases that I didn’t even realize I had, which I had to dig up, expose to light, and confront head-on. This led to me having some deep, white guilt. It was pretty unnerving to realize that not only was I part of the problem, but also, didn’t know how I could fix it.
Ultimately, I realized that the point of all this wasn’t for me to engage in self-condemnation; it was about me shutting up, listening, and understanding so I could do something within my power to help change the future. It wasn’t my fault that I was born with white skin, but, by acknowledging and seeking to understand the fundamental ways in which I unknowingly collude with oppression every day, I could begin to try and change that; that part was my responsibility. “When you know better, do better.”
After sitting with that discomfort, I had to make the conscious decision to listen rather than talk every time a minority or marginalized voice was speaking. In order to really understand, I had to start re-reading history – the books that might’ve been censored from my public education experience – and I had to seek out the written words and personal narratives of people in various marginalized communities.
Becoming highly aware (or “woke” as the kids say) is done by listening without talking (or having to have the last word), and really, truly acknowledging that the problem exists. This means you must wholeheartedly resist the temptation to say, “I hear you, but…” This is the very first step toward change. From there, your mind can be open to more compassion, and possibly even a desire to make things a bit better moving forwards.
Having said that, despite the small growing number of white people who are becoming woke, who want to start working to tackle racism, our society is at this strange point in discourse where the topic of racism has become so taboo that anyone trying to speak out against it tends to suffer some level of material consequence from other white people, such as character assassination. We’re accused of being “divisive,” or something like that. We’re dismissed as “angry” or we’re conveniently ignored. Instead of being outraged when the door cracks and racism tries to enter the discussion, my white friends, why not direct your outrage at actual racist rhetoric that you’ve been complicit in perpetuating?
Think about it. What is your knee-jerk reaction to being called out for “racism?” In actuality, insults only hurt deep down if they’re true. This is exactly why I can laugh it off and not feel a tinge of pain when someone sends me an e-mail accusing me of being a “child abuser” for supporting my trans child. It the furthest thing from the truth, it’s so absurd and foolheaded that all I can do is shake my head and chuckle at the irony.
Likewise, there’s no need to take personal offense at having white privilege, or being called out for racist remarks. Racism is not about you, nor is it a personal attack on your moral character. (I mean, unless you’re a member of the KKK, Neo-Nazis, or other white supremacist groups). The whole system was set up a long time ago, on purpose, for invisible, covert racism to thrive, without our knowledge or consent. It’s not your fault. But, once you understand this, it is your fault if you choose to be willfully ignorant.
“When you know better, do better.”
There are a few more things we’ve got to understand, my fellow white people. One is this: just because you don’t personally see it yourself, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. (Which can also be applied to homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, etc.) Another is this: it’s willfully ignorant to believe that we live in a meritocracy. We don’t. If we did, then the upper tiers of corporate America would not be crawling with middle-aged, cisgender white men.
There are many other different things we say and do, often that we’re not even aware of, that enable and perpetuate systemic racism. (Also, when we say and do these things, we prove without a doubt that we have that insidious form of invisible racism, alive and well, inside of us). Here are the top six types of invisible racists we encounter most often:
1.) Colorblind racists: These people say what they say with conviction and good intentions. They sincerely believe what they’re saying is progressive, the Cadillac of political correctness. These people tend to say, “I don’t see color; I just see people.” Or some variation of, “we all bleed the same.” Unfortunately, even with good intentions, if you say this (especially in a conversation about race and racism) you’re definitely pleading guilty to your denial of white privilege.
What you’re really communicating is “I don’t see color because I don’t have to.” Which means you have the privilege of ignoring the every day realities of racism that don’t affect you personally. If we can’t even be open to entertaining the possibility that a person of color is bearing witness to real pain they feel, then we are defining the very notion of white supremacy.
2.) Defensive racists: These people are always the first to point out, “but not all white people are racist!” Well, of course not all white people are overtly racist. But if you say “not all white people are racist” in response to people of color calling out structural inequalities and institutionalized racism that hurts them, what you’re really saying is “I’m going to take your pain, your tears, your very real hurt, and make it all about ME.” (a.k.a., “white tears.”)
Think of it this way: If you wouldn’t say it in front of your black friends, it’s definitely a racist remark. You also can’t absolve yourself by saying, “but I have black friends.” If you’re perpetuating stereotypes that would hurt an entire race of people, that is racism. This type of defensiveness is also a shut-down technique. It’s meant to be the last word, to punctuate the discussion with a period, and further, it’s an attempt to absolve the person of their white privilege.
3.) Apologetic racists: These people are the Paula Deen’s of racism. They are masters of manipulation. Guilt trips and white tears are hallmarks of their behavior. These people say what they want to say, and if a person of color has the chutzpah to call it out, the apologetic racist will resort to an overly tearful, remorseful, “It hurts to know that you think I’m racist.” They appear sorry only when called out, then, a tearful apology follows that further draws the attention back to the white voice and away from where it belongs – to the black voice that’s saying, “what you just said is racist, and it hurts me.” The right thing to do in this situation is remain calm and thank the person for making you aware, and a validation that you hear their words. That is even better than an apology.
On that note, there’s another common misconception that occurs across all minority or marginalized communities, with regard to the “majority peoples'” attitude. I find myself writing some form of this every time I write, so it bears repeating:
It is not the responsibility of minorities (people of color, gay, trans, etc.) to educate you or to forgive you every time you have another, and another, and another lapse. It is your responsibility to take the initiative to do better on your own. How? Read black (or gay, or trans, or feminist) writers. Listen to their voices. When they are talking, do not knee-jerk and say something defensive in response. Just. Listen. The only time it’s acceptable to say something in response is if you’re going to take what you learned from that marginalized community or person, and use it to further the conversation and help educate other white people (or heterosexual people, or cisgender people).
4.) Gaslighting racists: These people seek to sow seeds of doubt in hopes of making people of color question their own truth. They also tend to want to alleviate their white guilt. They say things like, “this isn’t about race; not everything is about race!” They also label those of us who talk about racism as “being divisive,” while neglecting to recognize that what’s actually divisive is centuries worth of black oppression that still is not over, like gerrymandering, the lingering effects of racial restrictive covenants in housing, racial profiling measures like stop and frisk, the overwhelmingly black population of mass incarceration, and the school to prison pipeline, for example.
5.) Denier Racists: Deniers try to prove racism doesn’t exist. They take angles that try to leverage the number of black people in power (like Oprah Winfrey, Beyoncé, Gen. Colin Powell, etc.) with the fact that racism can’t possibly exist. They argue things like, “But we have had a black President!” Remember, a black president was the exception, not the rule. 43 white presidents, 1 black president. (And look what followed the black president: an orange one, with a very green case of Obama-envy. But, I digress.)
When we deny the realities of systemic racism, we are in essence attempting to silence the conversation. We are also fooling ourselves into believing that we live in an imaginary, utopic world of meritocracy and post-racial society. By denying that color plays a role in injustice and ineqality, we are in no way improving the lives of people of color.
6.) Racing Racists: Obviously these people love a contest. They think oppression is a game or competition with a winner who stands to inherit something valuable. “You had slave ancestors? I had an entire branch of my family killed during the Holocaust!” That’s the type of sentiment these people relay, which is an attempt to diminish, lessen, or silence the experience of the person of color. This is not only insensitive, but also a deflection technique that, like the defensive racist, attempts to take the microphone away from the person of color to whom it belongs, and hand it over to the loudest voice, the one who doesn’t need amplification in that moment. Even if this is said with the intent to connect, it’s not a good way because it’s just another way that white people completely undermine and invalidate the person of color.
Now, I know you have abundant what-about questions like, “what about black-on-black crime?” Well, first of all, crime is crime. Second, you’re conveniently forgetting white-on-white crime (which accounts for 56.4% among poor urban white people, as compared to 51.3% among poor urban black people). And actually, black people hate crime just as much as white people. In fact, they have been creating music, rapping, marching, protesting, and holding vigils against violence in black communities for years.
What if we look at white-on-everyone-else crimes? Let’s consider a few whites with a known propensity for serial murder: Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Ed Gein, John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz, Henry Lee Lucas, Edmund Kemper, Gary Ridgway, James Huberty, George Hennard, Timothy McVeigh, Jeffrey Dahmer, Larry Gene Ashbrook, Luther Casteel, Ronald Popadich, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Mark Barton, Terry Ratzmann, Kyle Huff, Robert Hawkins, Nicholas Troy Sheley, George Sodini, Robert Stewart, Tyler James Peterson, Ted Kaczynski, Dennis Rader, Michael Kenneth McLendon, Eliott Rodger, Isaac Zamora, Scott Evans Dekraai, Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Dylan Roof, Chris Speight, Jared Lee Loughner, Stephen Paddock, Devin Kelley… the list goes on.
“But, how come black people can use the n—– word with each other, but white people can’t say it at all? Isn’t that reverse racism?”
Stop. Just stop.
Listen to what you’re actually saying. You know how you can berate your younger brother all you want, but if anyone else dares try, all bets are off and you go into protect mode? I mean, what are you even arguing for in this scenario? What outcome do you want? Do you really want to be able to use the n—– word, whether casually or for an attack? “It’s just the principal of the matter; it’s a double standard,” you might respond.
Let me make this comparison. Sometime last century, the word “queer” used to be one of the worst, most offensive labels we could give a guy. But then the Stonewall riots happened and queer, gay people decided there was nothing wrong with the word queer, and so they took it back. They reclaimed and de-stigmatized the word, thus, stripping it of its offensive power. There’s something to be said in that act of bravery.
Look, I know this thinking goes against the grain and feels “too liberal,” my white friend. But honestly? It’s not about politics. I mean, sure, the acceptable level of discourse because of who’s at the political top has been completely, for the moment, destroyed. But this is about beginning to mend the damage. This is about beginning to “reach across the aisle and work together,” (to use a political phrase). This is about not just restoring basic human decency and dialogue, but rising above, to the point where we can have healthy, functional dialogue — dialogue that leads to change. That level of dialogue can’t happen without your active listening first, though.
The next time you hear a phrase like “check your white privilege,” rest assured that you’re not being attacked, or being told to feel guilty about your identity or skin color. Checking your privilege is just an act whereby you give consideration to the fact that your words or actions may be furthering the oppression experienced by minorities or marginalized communities. It’s a call to think and act differently, and to be a better human.
If by reading this article you felt offended, attacked, or that it’s just all too much political correctness, ask yourself why. There’s probably a very relevant reason.
“When you know better, do better.” – Maya Angelou
*TGNC = trans and/or gender nonconforming
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